Wednesday’s roundup: Mickelson set for early return
La Quinta, Calif. — Phil Mickelson is set to play in the CareerBuilder Challenge, returning from two sports hernia surgeries a week earlier than he expected.
“I feel good and I want to play,” Mickelson said Wednesday in a statement. “I don’t know where my game is, but I figure the only way to find out is to play.”
He’ll face an unusual wet and chilly start in the desert, with rain expected overnight and Thursday morning and then again Friday. The forecast high for Thursday was 62 degrees, dipping to 59 on Friday.
Mickelson, 46, had surgery Oct. 19 — three days after tying for eighth in the season-opening Safeway Open — and again Dec. 12. He has been hitting balls for a week and played a practice round Wednesday.
In his first year as the tournament ambassador, Mickelson stuck to his normal routine of playing and practicing at The Madison Club instead of one of the three tournament courses. He wasn’t available for comment beyond his short statement.
The Hall of Famer was scheduled to open Thursday morning at La Quinta Country Club, then head to PGA West to play the Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course on Friday, the Stadium Course on Saturday and, if he makes the cut, the final round Sunday.
Mickelson won the 2002 and 2004 events and tied for third last year. Winless since the 2013 British Open, the 42-time PGA Tour winner plans to play the Farmers Insurance Open next week in his hometown of San Diego and the Waste Management Phoenix Open the following week.
Jason Dufner won last year, beating David Lingmerth with a par on the second hole of a playoff.
“Possibly going to have some weather issues this week, which will make it a little bit more challenging,” Dufner said. “But just excited to be back, excited to be back playing again. Took some time off at the end of the year, so played a couple weeks in Hawaii.”
Patrick Reed is the top-ranked player in the field at No. 9. He won the 2014 tournament.
“I never played here when it rained before; it’s always sunny and beautiful and perfect,” Reed said. “The golf courses aren’t that long, by the numbers, but if it starts getting cold, now the ball’s not traveling. If it gets wet, ball’s not going to travel, either. Then also, if it’s raining while you’re playing, not having that friction on the golf club, the ball’s not going to go as far as well. So, it’s just going to make it a lot longer.”
In 2014, he shot 63-63-63-71 to break the PGA Tour record for relation to par for the first 54 holes at 27 under and become the first player in tour history to open with three rounds of 63 or better. Two other PGA West courses were used that year in the pro-am event.
“These two golf courses are harder than the other two,” Reed said. “And I don’t think it’s as much as length as it is you can get away with some golf shots on the other ones. Here, you can get penalized for hitting a poor tee shot or poor iron shot. And the biggest difference I feel like is for the amateurs. The amateurs over there, they could hit some loose shots and they’re fine. Over here, when they hit a loose shot, they’re really struggling and it just seems to make the rounds a little longer. And now if you’re adding weather, some of these amateurs are going to struggle.”
Brendan Steele, the Safeway Open winner from nearby Idyllwild, played the PGA West courses as a junior. He also played in a rain-plagued Golden State two-man team event.
“That two-man team event, it actually dumped and we got cut down to 27 holes and barely got in nine holes the second day,” Steele said. “So, it was really, really bad. So, I have seen them that way. I may be one of the few guys in the field that has seen them that way.”
A Master-worthy victory
Toto Gana hit what he described as the “best shot I’ve hit in my whole life,” a wedge to 3 feet for a birdie to win the Latin America Amateur Championship and earn a trip to the Masters in April.
His best shot produced his biggest trophy.
Asked what his greatest achievement in golf was before his victory in Panama, the 19-year-old from Chile said: “I didn’t have any achievements, to be honest. I had won a couple of tournaments at home when I was really, really young.”
Justin Rose played the Sony Open as part of the new “strength of field” regulation on the PGA Tour that requires players who played fewer than 25 events last year to add a tournament they had not played in four years.
Rose was so excited about this year that he might have started earlier if he would have been eligible.
He failed to win a PGA Tour event for the first time since 2009. But in a year slowed by injury, Rose geared himself for golf’s return to the Olympics and won the gold medal in Rio. That was worth an exemption into the four majors (Rose already is eligible for them), but the PGA Tour did not offer a spot in SBS Tournament of Champions.
A birdie on the final hole at the Sony Open gave him second place, which was worth $648,000.
Playing to his strength
Jason Dufner is the defending champion at the CareerBuilder Challenger, where he won last year for the first time since the 2013 PGA Championship at Oak Hill. What changed? Very little.
He attributed the drought to a neck and shoulder injury that he suffered at the 2014 Masters. Dufner tried to play through it all year until he was forced to pull out of his title defense in the PGA Championship at Valhalla, which kept him off the Ryder Cup team. Playing with the injury led to bad habits with his swing, which led to bad shots, too many memories of bad shots and eventually shattered confidence.
Where he wants to be is one of the top ball-strikers in the game.
As for putting? He manages.
Race to Mexico
Mackenzie Hughes won the RSM Classic, and his first thought was going to the Masters.
Now that it’s beginning to sink in, the Canadian rookie has reason to consider other tournaments that were not on his schedule at the start of the season. First up is the World Golf Championship in Mexico.